The phrase “Give it up!” signals two very different practices, which are part of two equally different occasions. The more recent meaning is a call to applaud a musical or dramatic performance of quality; the traditional understanding is a summons to penance, particularly during Lent. As different as these meanings may appear at first glance, each can point to an important aspect of the liturgical season.
During the next six weeks of Lent, the first readings highlight the covenant relationship that God establishes with the people, while the epistles and Gospels constitute an album of snapshots that capture Jesus bringing God’s love to the world. It is clear that the readings for Lent focus on what God has done out of love, rather than on what we might do out of guilt. This is certainly reason for applause, so “Give it up!”
The readings do much more than simply describe the saving action of God. They call us to respond to that divine magnanimity. Mercy and love have been offered to us; our acceptance of divine solicitude will prompt us to change the sinfulness of our lives. This is the reason for our penance, so, if necessary “Give it up!”
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are religious disciplines that have long been cherished in many of the religions of the world. As important as they are, they are not meant to be merely public displays of personal prowess. In today’s reading from Joel, God charges us, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” This same concern for inner integrity is clear in Jesus’ words in the Gospel: Do not blow the horn before you; do not pray in order to be noticed; do not let others know that you are fasting.
While prayer is always relevant, fasting and almsgiving have lost some of their religious significance today. Some fast in order to lose weight; others give to charities in order to claim a tax write-off. While such practices are certainly acceptable, their motivation can hardly be called religious.
Today we may have to discover new ways of appreciating fasting and almsgiving. Isaiah once wrote: “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed” (Is 58:6). Perhaps today our covenant with God is calling us to care more deeply for children, even those who are not our own; to show greater respect for the cultural or religious diversity within which we live; to take a more active role in church matters. Perhaps instead of giving our money to others, we are being asked to give of ourselves, of our time or of our talents.
Lent offers us a graced opportunity to reevaluate and readjust our relationship with God. So, give it up for that relationship!